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The Ten Commandments of Game Design – Part 1

Posted by Eric on 30.03.11

And He Said “Thou Shalt”

You know, I really love games.  I mean really.  A good game to me is something like an interactive book or movie.  As gamers, we don’t just follow the story, we get to influence it and really experience it.  And nothing pulls us out of that experience faster than a design flaw.  In that moment, we completely forget about storming the castle and remember that we’re just watching a bunch of pretty dots on a screen. Sometimes they’re unimportant enough that we quickly ignore them.  But sometimes it’s something so critical, even if small, that it makes the game almost more trouble than it’s worth.  Now, I’ve done my fair share of writing and programming, so I’m more than a little understanding when a minor error slips through.  But some problems are far too egregious to ever be included in a game.  The next few posts will deal with my list of design elements that can make or break a Game of the Year contender.

#1: Thou Shalt Not Make the Player Wait

I think it’s safe to say much of the gaming crowd suffers at least a little from ADHD.  Not that we can’t be patient when necessary, but a game ideally should never have long stretches where the player has no option but sit and wait.  And this begins with the opening titles.  Why are games still released where the player can’t skip the titles and go straight to the main menu?  If it’s a good game, I know know exactly who made it.  I don’t need five splash screens, each up to ten seconds long, constantly reminding me.  If the titles are mandatory the first time the game is launched, fine, I’m willing to watch your snazzy title screens and logo animations and I may be amused the first few times.  But on the tenth launch, I’ve pretty much got them memorized.  ( I’m looking at you, Dragon Age and Demon’s Souls! )  What’s worse is when the “skip feature” only shaves two seconds off a ten second intro.  Then I know you put extra time in allowing the title to be skipped, but didn’t make much use of that time.  ( Still looking at you, Dragon Age! ) I’m sure some studios likely have legal requirements to display every license used on the game, all physics and graphics engines, and every team and publisher that worked on the title.  Yes, they deserve recognition for their work.  But please, dump the long animations and turn them into quick splash screens to fade in and out.  Better yet, just stick all the logos on a single splash screen while a loading progress bar scrolls across the bottom.  At least then I know the game’s doing something.  Otherwise I’m left to assume I have to watch logos just because someone wanted pointless image exposure.

And speaking of loading screens, I know optimizing and speeding up the game initialization process is low on the priority list since it only happens once per session, ( and again, Dragon Age! ) but the faster it is, the more we gamers are grateful to you!  Trust me, we take special notice of how long or short it takes a game to get up and running, and this includes the time to load a saved game.  I realize that some games require a lot of information to be in a save file, and thus a lot of information to load.  And after that, you’ve got to load the game map, objects, textures, etc.  But just like that first initialization screen, I guarantee you shortening the load process is always noticed and always appreciated.  I remember Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox.  The first load could take a while, but after that it held the game in a cache or something because all subsequent loads were near instant.  Given the number of deaths and loads in that game, it was very appreciated.  If a game load takes more than 20 seconds, it’s nice to see some kind of screen to give the player something to do, like Final Fantasy XIII giving a story synopsis of where you are, just in case you forgot.  If nothing else, you can take the Insomniac approach and show some type of transition, a la Ratchet & Clank flying the ship to the new planet.

Next on the wait list is the menu animation.  I know it’s tempting to make it seem cool and flashy, but again I shouldn’t have to wait a second or two between every sub menu. ( I’m talking to you, Prince of Persia! )  Simple, fast animations are more than welcome, but let’s not get carried away, please?  If nothing else, how about an option to enable/disable menu animations, eh?

Third, you should never make the gamer wait on dialog, cutscenes, or movies.  I can usually read subtitles faster than a character speaks.  And I really hate going through a conversation a second time, either from loading a previous save or playing through the game again.  On the flip side, it’s rather nice to be able to pause a movie or cutscene at any time since I can’t foresee when the phone or doorbell will ring.  But please, if you implement this, it’s much better to be able to pause and continue instead of skipping the whole thing at the first button press ( Final Fantasy XIII did this very well as the cutscene “pause menu” gave you the choice to skip or resume. )

Finally, lose the death scene.  Anyone who played Mass Effect ( at least on the PC, ) knows what I’m talking about.  You open the door and get in a massive firefight.  Then some Krogan rushes you, sends you flying, and follows up with a nasty shotgun blast.  The screen tints red, the sorrowful music plays, and the camera goes into a long slow-mo pan around your corpse as it not so gracefully slumps to the floor.  You’re then presented with the option to load the most recent save, pick from a save game, or return to the main menu.  Right?  Wrong.  Game developers, I bought your game, I keep you in business.  Why do you feel the need to kick me when I’m down after dying?  I’m already frustrated enough at losing, you don’t need to rub my nose in it.  If you want to go for the “dramatic” death, fine, but the instant I hit a button or click my mouse, I better see the load screen.  It’s even worse on more challenging games, or higher difficulty settings, where you’re to likely die a lot.  And if the game load time is long too, the developer is just compounding transgressions of this, the First Commandment of Game Design.

#2: Thou Shalt Not Restrict Button Mapping

Can someone please explain to me why a professional game studio with access to some of the most advanced programming tools and software can’t find a way to let the player remap every control in the game?  The worst offenders are the games that offer one, and only one, button layout.  And really, offering four layout options isn’t much better ( though usually this equates to only two since options C and D are usually mirrored A and B for the lefties. )  If you’re expecting your game to be commercially successful ( and why wouldn’t you? ) how can you think that two or even four control options will fit 100,000+ players?  I don’t know what’s more frustrating, being forced to learn a completely new button layout, or having a layout that matches 90% of my existing preference except for that one damn button I keep hitting by mistake due to old habits.  And what’s with those games released on both console and PC where the console version has a locked control scheme but the PC is completely customizable?  Do consoles have some sort of restriction against this?

Please, please, please, give players the option to completely reorganize the button layout to their own preferences.  I don’t mean you have to give them insane options like assigning “walk forward” to the trigger or “reload” to the left thumbstick.  But I damn well better be able to map common actions to whichever buttons I want and invert both axes of the camera ( what is with this idea of pressing right on the thumbstick to look left?  I’m not rotating a camera pan handle. )  And speaking of camera inverting, please separate it for player one and player two during the split-screen co-op mode.  Is it really that dificult to let me use the buttons as I wish?  In the end, if a player can’t remap the controls to their own liking, they have to stop and think about how to do any action in the game and that means they’re constantly reminded it’s just a game and it kills the immersion factor.

#3: Thou Shalt Tame Thy Camera

If I can’t see the game correctly, I can’t play it.  Just like remapping buttons, if the player has to fight the camera through the whole game, they’re always reminded it’s just a game.  The best thing that can be said of a camera is if you don’t notice it’s there.  If the game review doesn’t mention anything about the camera, a developer should take that as the greatest compliment.  Believe me, you’ll hear plenty from critics and gamers if the camera is bad  Here are some of the most common camera problems that should be thoroughly tested and corrected before a game ever ships:

Full Axis Control

Yes, I’m repeating this from above because I find it that critical.  If the thumbsticks are meant to control the camera, let the player decide exactly how to use them.  If they want to use the X-axis on one stick and the Y-axis on the other, why not let them?  And why not give them the option to invert one or both camera axes?  Again, I don’t like the idea of treating a third-person camera like a panning lever ( looking left by tilting the thumbstick right, ) but apparently some players and/or studios do because either the option is there or the studio decided to make it the default and only setting ( why, oh why, Kingdom Hearts II? )

Wall Collision & Camera Obstruction

This is a big question in third-person games since the camera is essentially an invisible lens floating ten feet behind the character.  If you want to rotate the camera around the character but you’re only five feet from a wall, the camera will want to cut through said wall.  The most common “solution” is to write some code that won’t let a camera clip through any wall ( otherwise it’d be easy to see through walls, understandably. )  Early versions of this method had the camera restricted to the same height and distance from the character so seeing all around your character was impossible when even remotely close to a wall ( a very unfortunate flaw in Crisis Core. )

To remedy this, some games had the camera slide along the wall so it came closer to the character.  Sometimes this would work well, but it sometimes meant the entire screen was filled with just the character’s shoulder ( unless the character became transparent which was very helpful. )  Other methods keep the camera at the set distance from the character but have it slide up the wall, giving you a top-down view.  But if I wanted a top view, I would’ve panned the camera up, not left.  Overall, this method can work well with smooth walls, but the instant you get irregular environmental objects like trees, street signs, or rubble, panning around the scene usually results in a jerky camera as it slides between and around objects ( or worse, gets stuck between two objects. )

On the other side, if the camera can clip through objects, you run into the problem of having the camera inside an object.  Even if the camera isn’t completely obstructed, it’s common to see a partially displayed object on the screen ( like seeing the outline textures, but otherwise looking right through it. )  The other problem with no camera collision is having a large object, like a tree or wall, directly between the camera and character.  Just try shooting a bad guy when all you can see is an extreme closeup of tree bark.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the camera without collision detection.  It feels smoother when the camera isn’t constantly jumping between objects and jerking around.  Camera obstructions with objects between the camera and character are easily resolved with transparency or wireframes.  To keep the player from seeing what’s on the other side of walls,  only show the polygons on the side closest to the player and nothing on the other side.  Again, I’m no ace programmer so I don’t know how difficult it would be to implement a camera like this, but I’d sure like to see it attempted more often than it is, even to become the standard in all third-person games.

Auto-Follow / Auto-Centering

For the love of my sanity, give me an option to turn these off!  I’ll admit most auto-follow cameras are done pretty well, but every now and then I have to fight the camera to keep it pointed in one direction while I’m moving in another.  Fighting the camera is always bad!

Fixed Camera Positions/Transitions

I never played the original Resident Evil games on the PlayStation.  But after a co-op Resident Evil 5 gaming session, I decided I’d give them a try.  So I bought RE1 off the PlayStation Store and fired it up.  In less than an hour, my TV had a few close calls with a thrown controller.  Now I welcome the challenge of a difficult game.  But this game just made me mad by the poor camera positions.  I understand part of that scare factor in that game was the surprise in turning a corner and finding yourself nose to nose with a zombie when the camera finally switched.  All the same, I didn’t find it challenging, I found it frustrating and unreasonable.

Sadly, some games still fail in this right.  Many puzzle and platform games can benefit from a wide angle view in some places.  Just remember the camera’s first job is to show the player their route options, not to showcase your graphics engines with Utopian vistas.  If multiple fixed positions are used, make sure those views have ample overlap; don’t make the player walk right to a blind corner or to the edge of the screen before switching to the next view.  A surprise now and then is nice for atmosphere.  But a surprise that can easily end in death is a good way to really upset the player.  Particularly if they have to endure a long slow-mo death scene and a long game load time.  And unless the developer wants death by camera complaints, the camera view should never, NEVER switch in the middle of platform jumping or complex puzzle actions. ( Fair warning, opening the previous link will likely suck away hours of your time. )

Logarithmic Sensitivity

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not great at first-person action games.  I might get slightly better than average as I play, but I’ll never be anywhere near the top of the leaderboards.  Frankly, my thumbs just aren’t twitchy enough to pull off that 200m headshot while jumping on the run.  So I have to dial down the look sensitivity a bit if I want to properly aim at all.  However, on many games, this means that not only is my fine-tune aiming just a little slow ( which helps me a bit, ) but actually turning around is slow too ( which gets me killed more often than usual. )  Wouldn’t it be great if action games like this would let the center of the thumbstick be a little less sensitive while the outer edges were always at the max?

Actually some games have had this and it was called “logarithmic sensitivity” ( though it could be called “exponential sensitivity” too. )  Ever see a mouse setting on your PC labeled “mouse acceleration?”  That’s a similar idea.  For those that don’t know, mouse acceleration means the faster you move your mouse the farther it would track the cursor on your screen ( meaning if you move your mouse slowly one inch, it might move the cursor one inch, but if you zipped the mouse that same inch three times faster, the cursor might move three inches instead of one. )  The idea is not to make a huge dead zone in the middle of the thumbstick.  Instead the thumbstick is tracked slower while in the middle while it gets progressively more sensitive as you move it toward the edges.  I don’t know how many gamers have never even heard of or considered this option so maybe this is only a personal rant that no one cares about.  But I’m willing to bet a fair amount of players would find it quite helpful if more games offered it.

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